FLM Centerball 43 FT v.II
$380 - £235 www.flm-gmbh.de

The FLM Centerball 43 FT with the optional SRB-40 quick release.

FLM is becoming well known for its wide range of ball heads, and has recently added tripods, monopods, and leveling bases to its portfolio of higher-end products. This family-operated company in Emmindingen, Germany stands behind all of its products with a generous 10-year warranty and a growing international distribution network.

After our introduction to this brand with the CB-58 FTR (a fully-loaded monolith of a ball head), we have high expectations for the performance and durability of this smaller, but still quite hefty, 43mm head. Of particular interest are the improvements made to this 'version II' series of heads, some of which are cosmetic, and others mechanical.

Specifications

Ball diameter   43mm (1.7")
Height  100mm (3.93")
Weight  588g (1.3 lb)
Base diameter  60mm (2.36")
Maximum load  30kg (66 lb)
MSRP  $380, or $450 with SRB-40
Warranty  10 years, worldwide

Design and features

The Centerball 43 FT II (or CB-43) is part of a mechanically updated series of heads from FLM, all of which continue the same silver and black tones found on the CB-58 in our previous reviews. One external difference on these 'version II' heads is a larger pan control knob, making it easier to distinguish among the numerous, similar knobs. Although there are three knobs on the body of the CB-43 being reviewed, there is a noticeable screw head covering the opening for the optional Pan Rest System (PRS) knob, which would add a 15° clicking action to the panning base, if it were present. Eschewing this feature both lowers the price and the complexity of the head.

Numeric friction control

FLM's innovative system for setting and remembering the minimum friction is built into the numbered index ring around the main friction knob. On many other heads, this is purely a cosmetic ring, serving as a reminder of the current friction amount, but on the FLM ball heads, this ring mechanically sets the minimum friction while still serving as a visual index. This means there is one less (difficult-to-access) screw to be turned, and that any minimum friction amount is easily and consistently repeatable.

PTF tilt control

On the larger FLM ball heads with the FT designation, the Patented Tilt Function provides a 2D pan/tilt head whenever precise vertical adjustments are needed. Better than a conventional tilt head, the angle of the camera can be set anywhere within the constraints of the case and still be set to tilt only.

As the 'neigen/tilt' knob is tightened, pressure is placed on the ball across its horizontal poles, making any side-to-side tilt or rotation very difficult. As with the larger CB-58, this feature increases the friction on the ball, so it is different in use from the gimbal/tilt functions of other heads in this group.

Adjustable pan friction

A notable improvement in the 'version II' heads from FLM is the larger pan knob with added friction control. In a departure from the typical on/off locking mechanism of most panning bases, the new panning base has adjustable friction which allows for either a slower or faster pan speed, depending on how far the knob is turned toward lock.

As part of this improvement, the base itself has been sealed to prevent any dust or grit getting inside the head. This should preserve the fluid motion of the panning base after extended use.

SRB-40 quick release

While traditionally most FLM heads come only with a flat platform and 1/4" threaded screw on top of the ball, an increasing number of the company's heads are coming from the factory with a quick release that is sized to the head. The SRB-40 is a welcome addition to the CB-43, due to its small size and near-universal, dovetail quick release plate compatibility.

Construction and handling

The two-toned aluminum finish common to all the FLM ball heads.

FLM Centerball heads all possess thick walls of aluminum in a matte black finish as a robust counterpoint to the silvered knobs and ball. These hallmarks distinguish the heads among the legions of solid black cylinders. Each knob is similarly machined from aluminum, and are all well-finished with generous grooves to add to their ease of use.

One of the unique qualities of FLM products is not what they are made of, but how they are made. CNC (computer numerical control) machining is a common method to manufacture very precise and repeatable parts in small batches, but FLM goes a step further by keeping its parts in the same clamp from raw material to finished product, throughout many operations, in order to further minimize errors or variation. This isn't the most efficient method of production, but the end result is a collection of parts that feel more than tightly assembled, and almost as if they are a single piece of aluminum.

Ergonomics

FLM places the main friction and locking knob 120° off of the drop slot on nearly all of its heads. When the drop slot is used to put a camera into portrait orientation on the left side (so that the shutter release and controls are accessible on the top), the main knob is at the back, but pointing a bit to the right. This is better than having the knob way over on the right or facing away from the photographer, but still not ideal. On the plus side, this offset allows the legs of reverse-folding tripods to tuck around the plethora of knobs with no interference.

That main locking knob, with its friction control ring at the base, is just as smooth and gradual as we've come to expect from FLM, with a very fine threading and dead-simple friction settings. Every knob is also completely solid and captive, moving with a steady ease that speaks of the quality and attention to detail in these heads.

In our previous review of the FLM CB-58, we found the array of physically identical knobs for the pan lock, tilt control, and PRS system to be ergonomically confusing when our mind was on the shot and our eye was on the viewfinder. FLM has addressed this, to some degree, with a larger pan knob on the series-II heads, and the complexity was further reduced by forgoing the PRS system knob entirely.

New panning base

While there was not much wrong with the panning base on the previous models of FLM heads, there is always room for improvement. With the 'version II' heads, the panning base knob has been enlarged to make it easier to distinguish among the otherwise identical knobs, and also to provide a finer control over the newly increased pan friction range. 

The brake on most panning bases switches quickly from free rotation to completely locked, which means that those knobs really only need to turn a small amount. FLM has changed the behavior to be a gradual lock, with a small degree of friction control to the braking action. In some respects this is similar to the Markins pan lock method, intended to reduce system vibrations, except that the FLM panning base will still confidently lock, and stay locked.

As part of the redesign, the entire base itself has been better sealed against dust and moisture incursion. While environmental contamination is rarely a problem at the base of tripod heads, the additional sealing is welcome.

Field experience

The CB-43 FT in the field, easily holding a long lens in any position desired.

The Centerball-43 is the second largest and heaviest of the heads reviewed in this group (the relatively giant Vanguard BBH-300 is first), and that is fairly apparent when it rests on top of a mid-sized tripod while hiking. Like many FLM heads, saving on weight and space has taken a back seat to building an extremely robust device, and if our experience with the larger CB-58 is any indication, this smaller head is also solidly durable.

FLM stability

Another hallmark of FLM heads is their ability to handle heavy loads with precision and aplomb, so we loaded the CB-43 up with everything from a heavy 500mm prime to our vibration-sensitive 180mm for 1:1 macros. While the stated maximum load of the head easily encompasses these lenses, those numbers are not based on a standard measurement, and can generally be misleading. However, once again FLM does not disappoint in the stability and ease of operation of the head, even under these veritable stress tests.

Of particular note is that a slight vibration we noticed with the CB-58 (when moving the ball under tension and coming to an abrupt stop), is entirely gone with the CB-43 vII. We never really considered this a detriment in the previous review because the ball motion is otherwise so smooth and confident under load, and pretty much every other head had a greater degree of this minor vibration when stopping. That said, the improvement is both noticeable and welcome, and suggests that the head has been better insulated from external vibrations as well.

Return of the PTF

justified and ancient

The FLM Patented Tilt Function (PTF) remains a standout feature on their larger heads, which includes the CB-43. In this group review of heads, there are three other heads (from KPS, Uniqball and Markins) that also provide mechanical ways to restrict the motion of the ball to a single axis. So while the PTF function may not be quite as unusual in this group, it is different enough in form and function that FLM still stands out.

One of the key advantages to the PTF function is that it is entirely built-in. There is no accessory to buy, nor is there a tool required or physical part to rearrange. It does, however, come at an extra expense compared to FLM heads without the FT designation, but then it's only a few short turns of a knob to somewhat restrict the motion of the ball to a single axis.

Note the word 'somewhat' above. Unlike the other reviewed solutions, the PTF system really only makes it much more difficult to pull the ball off axis when the PTF knob is fully engaged. We found that this makes the ball motion far less fluid for manipulating long lenses in a single-axis, or doing smooth vertical pans, particularly when compared to the motion of the other gimbal-like ball heads. Of course, the FLM heads can restrict the tilt regardless of where the ball is positioned beforehand, providing some additional freedom for spur-of-the-moment use.

Stress test results

Sag and lock test

After mounting a 1.9kg, 50-500mm zoom lens onto the SRB-40 quick release with a long lens plate, the ball friction was set to hold the lens at a 45-degree angle above the drop slot. The motion of the ball under this large amount of friction was still smooth enough to easily frame the target.

Starting point 30 sec. sag result Post-lock result

Once framed, shots taken 30 seconds apart showed no droop or creep, with a difference of only 0.12% of the frame. Carefully turning the main knob to fully lock the head down produced a 2% shift of the total frame. FLM is well known for the stability of their heads, and the CB-43 is no exception.

Pan lock test

The large panning lock knob was tightened, and although it doesn't have the hard stop of other pan lock knobs, when it felt difficult to move we considered it locked. Sure enough, the panning base showed no motion at all when the tripod was braced and a long lens plate was used as a lever to try and rotate it. The only downside is that the new gradual-lock design takes a bit more twisting to feel like it's locked.

Cold weather test

During the Canadian cold weather testing (sometimes as low as -11° F, -24°C), this mid-sized FLM head was always easy to handle and manipulate with gloves and mitts, thanks to the big friction ring, and the large, well-knurled knobs. Considering that none of those knobs have an insulating rubber grip, it was quite nice to avoid pulling off the gloves in these extreme cold conditions.

The feel of the ball motion did not change at all in the cold, and only became a bit rougher when the tilt knob was tightened. Meanwhile, the redesigned pan base locking knob had none of the cold-stickiness of the previous versions, and the base itself remained both easy to turn and control.

Summing up

FLM produces so many nearly-identical ball heads, that it is perhaps unsurprising the Centerball 43 looks and behaves very much like its larger, much-lauded sibling, the CB-58. Where the 43mm version stands out is in bringing the headline FLM features, and 'version II' controls and vibration-resistance, to compete in the crowded field of mid-sized ball heads.

The very fine friction control and bombproof build of the FLM line make this head distinct among its peers, while the PTF option adds useful and unique control to the very solid ball motion. The downside of being so similar to other FLM heads is that the weight and price (even without a quick release) are larger than expected for a 43mm ball head.

What we like:

  • High quality construction
  • Easily repeatable friction settings
  • Improved ergonomics and pan action
  • Tilt function for precise composition
  • 10 year warranty

What we don't like:

  • Thick and heavy for a 43mm ball
  • Extra twists needed to lock the pan base
  • Quick release is an added expense